Wong Tung Jim: Bridging Cultures Through Artistry

Saurav Singh

Image Courtesy: Google Doodle

Wong Tung Jim, (August 28, 1899 – July 12, 1976), known professionally as James Wong Howe, was a highly accomplished Chinese-born American cinematographer with a prolific career spanning over 130 films. Renowned for his innovative filming techniques, he emerged as one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. His expertise lay in his mastery of shadow utilization and his pioneering work in deep-focus cinematography, a technique where both foreground and distant planes remain in focus.

Life and Career

Wong Tung Jim was born in Taishan, Canton Province, Qing China, in 1899. His father, Wong Howe, moved to the United States to work on the Northern Pacific Railway and later brought his family over in 1904. They settled in Pasco, Washington, where they owned a general store. Wong’s early interest in photography was sparked by a Brownie camera he acquired as a child, purchased from a local drugstore in Pasco.

Following his father’s passing, a young Wong moved to Oregon to live with his uncle. He briefly pursued a career as a bantamweight boxer between 1915 and 1916, compiling a record of 5 wins, 2 losses, and a draw. However, he later shifted his focus to his passion for photography. Wong’s journey led him to the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually to Los Angeles, where he took on various odd jobs to support himself.

Wong’s journey into the film industry began as an assistant to the esteemed director Cecil B. DeMille. He soon became a pioneer in cinematography, introducing the use of wide-angle lenses, low-key lighting techniques, and the innovative crab dolly. His expertise in cinematography garnered him a reputation as an influential figure in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite his professional success, Wong faced considerable racial discrimination in his personal life. He obtained American citizenship only after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Moreover, due to anti-miscegenation laws, his marriage to a white woman was not legally recognized in the United States until 1948.

James Wong Howe’s legacy is marked by his groundbreaking contributions to the art of cinematography. His ability to manipulate light and shadow, coupled with his pioneering work in deep-focus cinematography, revolutionized filmmaking techniques. His influence continues to reverberate through the world of cinema, and his resilience against racial adversity serves as a testament to his character and determination.

On 28 August 2017, a Google Doodle was created to celebrate Wong Tung Jim’s 118th Birthday.